Review of The Upswing – Can We Bridge Again?

Though Robert Putnam has served since 1979 as dean and then distinguished professor of political science at the Kennedy School at Harvard, most Americans—including me—only became aware of his keen analytical descriptions of U.S society in 2000, when he published Bowling Alone, his blockbuster study of declining social capital in America.  In that book, Putnam argued that the U.S. has undergone an unprecedented collapse in civic and political life since the 1960s.  Many traditional social, fraternal, and religious organizations—typified by bowling leagues—experienced a massive decline in membership in the late twentieth century, with an outcome that’s been extremely damaging to the American psyche.

Putnam derived his concept of social capital from the nineteenth century French social theorist and observer of American society, Alexis de Tocqueville.  Tocqueville defined social capital as “trends in civic engagement of a wider sort” that occur through associational ties, and that allow democracy to thrive.  Putnam theorizes that these associational networks lessened during the last third of the twentieth century, resulting in rising rates of unhappiness, loneliness, and political dysfunction.

Putnam’s development of the social capital concept went further than Tocqueville’s, as he made a distinction between two kinds of social capital:  bonding and bridging.  Bonding capital takes place, Putnam suggests, when we socialize with people like ourselves.  While bonding capital is useful in any society, in a multi-ethnic country like ours we also need bridging capital.  Bridging capital becomes necessary in order to create a flourishing society in a diverse nation, and it occurs when we deliberately choose to associate with people unlike ourselves.

Ever hopeful, Putnam in Bowling Alone indicated his belief that, although we witnessed “the collapse…of American community” since the 1960s, we could also choose to participate in the “revival” of a sense of community.  The thesis of Bowling Alone, then, provided everyday Americans with a helpful description of what we were experiencing in our society at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Little did we know, back in 2000, that the trends Putnam depicted would only grow worse, not better.  How could we anticipate an increase in terrorism leading to an insular culture of fear, the ascendency of social media influence, the rise in political polarization, vitriolic public discourse, a proliferation of disinformation, and the makings of autocratic populism?

Now, twenty years later, and given these social trends, Putnam has widened the scope of his groundbreaking research with another important book:  The Upswing:  How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again.  Building on his earlier investigation, Putnam makes the case for a broad metanarrative of the last one hundred and fifty years of American cultural history and assesses today’s events in light of that historical perspective.

Putnam begins Upswing by portraying the late nineteenth century Gilded Age.  The stresses of that period of industrialization—similar to the tensions facing today’s society—were at least partly the product of new technologies.  At stake was the very real possibility that the narcissistic concentration of economic power in a few hands would destroy American democracy.  How could the U.S. both preserve the idea that “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom” and preserve the right of business tycoons to build industries, in the face of technology that permitted unprecedented accumulations of wealth?  Putnam tells a story of political divisiveness, racial violence, and economic inequality.  Though he’s writing about the post-Civil War era, this description sounds like the headlines that one would read in a current edition of The New York Times.

But the remarkable—and encouraging—part of the book’s narrative is what Putnam recounts next:  he details a seventy year “upswing” (from about 1895 to about 1965) of increasing democratization, cooperative and generous altruism, high levels of bipartisanship, and greater political and economic equality for historically oppressed groups, such as women, African Americans, and other people of color.  The author demonstrates these positive changes by presenting extensive statistical analysis from many scholars, portrayed in over sixty graphs.  The upswing occurred because of the hard work of a highly dedicated group of reformers during the Progressive era, the New Deal, the war years, and the Great Society.

Putnam provides so many examples of positive social capital during the upswing that it’s difficult to summarize them all.  One of my favorites, though, is his outline of the growth of political comity during the 1940s, ‘50s, and early ‘60s.  Diagrams in the book show the high degree of bipartisan cooperation in those years, resulting in constructive action for crucial legislative achievements like work safety laws, the interstate highway system, Civil Rights acts, and immigration reform.  How I wish for such political cooperation today, which could result in enacting positive changes for the benefit of all.

Following up on these decades of cohesion, however, beginning in the mid-1960s, came the unravelling of the social fabric in the U.S., when self-interest and fragmentation took the place of generous responsibility toward the common good.  Putnam describes this motion as an arc that has moved from an “I”-focused society (Gilded Age) to a “we”-focused society (1940s-early ‘60s) and then followed once again, more recently, by an “I”-focused society.  The political and social upheaval of the past few years seems to support his characterization of American society’s return to an I-focused posture.

It will be interesting for readers to note that Putnam places the start of our current condition of social angst prior to the rise of social media.  Now the argument of Upswing clearly doesn’t let Big Tech off the hook as a factor but, as with most events in history, it’s essential to provide nuance and complexity.  The role of social media, he contends, served mostly as an accelerant to a trend that he dates back to the mid-1960s.

But Putnam isn’t dissuaded or discouraged by America’s current malaise.  The subtitle of Upswing reiterates his typically optimistic frame of mind, when he declares—regarding our coming together a century ago—that “we can do it again.”  Let’s hope that he’s correct:  we certainly could use some upswinging right about now.